It has been a little over 2 years since Ronnie Screwvala left the media and entertainment sector after UTV, the company he had founded back in 1990, was bought over by The Walt Disney Group. However, he has not let the grass grow under his feet. Apart from his philanthropic commitments with Swades Foundation (a NGO he started), he has founded Unilazer Ventures, which has interests in sports (USports), digital content (UDigital) and education (UpGrad). He is also the owner of U Mumba, one of the more consistently successful teams in the first two seasons of the Pro Kabaddi League.
Article by Abhinn Shreshtha
We caught up with him for an in-depth discussion on his new business ventures, the move from broadcast to digital and other topics. Here, he speaks about the extensive investments that he is making in sports. Excerpts:
Pro Kabaddi League has been a spectacular success. What lies ahead for the league?
I think most people were expecting the league to be successful but maybe over a 1-2 year period, so, the “surprise” was that the success came in the very first season and I think there are some reasons for that. You take a sport like kabaddi; it is a very sharp game; for 40 minutes, it is completely action-packed. It is almost gladiatorial, very Bollywood-like in some ways and, yet, it is a sport. Now, if you take these three things and add a lot of glamour, package it well and market it, like what Star has done, it is sure to work great.
Now, from here onwards, this will be the first league that will have two different seasons in one year. This, obviously, speaks about the success PKL has had but it is also important since it keeps the sport in people’s minds.
You can have a two month long league for cricket because it is still played in some form in the remaining months. In case of kabaddi, the impact is lost if you have a league that lasts for just one and a half month and it then gets forgotten for the remaining 10 months. So this is what is going to happen from now on; so we finished with one season in August 2015 and now the next season will by January end 2016.
I am not a spokesperson for the PKL but I think expanding the number of teams from the present 8 to 12 or 16 would be the right way to go because then you get a lot more states and cities where the game is getting played. The third I think is venues, which is a challenge. We need to get the 10,000 capacity venues. We don’t need 50,000 capacity venues for this sport because Kabaddi is a little bit of a personal sport; it is not a stadium sport like football or cricket, but it also cannot be played in a 1,000 seat venue. So I think the investment in infrastructure will take place.
The fourth thing is that advertisers and investors need to come in. The audiences are already showing a lot of enthusiasm, which is great.
Your own team U Mumba has also been performing really well…
For U Mumba, the first focus has always been teamwork. We are the only team that has come to the finals in both the seasons and we have also won one. That is a good start, but this is a sport, so anything can happen tomorrow. You will see that in the next season, we will have the same team that we had in season two. Most of the teams seem like they will undergo some change. The next thing is that we are constantly looking at getting new talent. Our on-ground programs to identify the future stars of Kabaddi is something else that will give us an edge.
We have been hearing about U Mumba being close to getting more sponsors on board. Can you tell us something about this? Also, is interest from advertisers in PKL and the franchises increasing?
Sponsorship-wise we are definitely looking at a 3x-4x jump. In Season 2 we had 8 sponsors and for Season 3, coming in January, we are looking at 15 sponsors. There has been a fair amount of interest but there seems to be a perception problem among advertisers, which is absolutely wrong, that Kabaddi is a mass sport. Actually, it is watched equally by people in urban areas. Kids have taken to it. It is the only sport which has 30 per cent female viewership. Even cricket and football can’t boast of this. So, obviously, it is hitting the high points in the top of the pyramid sector also.
Now, all advertisers take one or two years; they are always behind the trend, to be frank. They lost the digital plot, then they lost the new media plot. Maybe 50 per cent of the reason is that it is convenient to not face up to it (change) because, otherwise, they will have to pay the right rates for what they want. The other 50 per cent is because they are just behind times. So, that’s a process; we will go out and pitch and educate.
But we are very clear that if you see where IPL is placed and where ISL is placed, we are the No. 2 sport in the country; there is no doubt about it. There might be some media dispute over whether football is No.2 or Kabaddi is No.2 but any ratings agency will tell you that PKL ratings are at least 1-1.8 times that of ISL at any stage of the matches and that’s really what counts. So, if a sport gets higher ratings than football, why should it get 1/4th the rate of football? This is why we have a “take it or leave it” approach with advertisers.
Do you think having two seasons in one year will make PKL more attractive to advertisers?
It is the way to go because you cannot build a sport with a one and a half month window. All leagues around the world are 6-8 months long. If you look at EPL (English football’s top division) or anything else, even basketball or rugby, the leagues last for 6-8 months. We are the only country in the world where we have created leagues that last for 6 weeks. Now, the viewership pattern; if you take a 3 month league, you see a ‘U’ affect. The interest sags and then it starts coming back towards the end.
That is why we have broken it up into two separate seasons of 6 weeks each and I think this is absolutely the right way to go.
In sports, you are already in football and kabaddi. You mentioned that gaming (video gaming) and Moto (motorcycle racing) are two other sports that Unilazer Sports is interested in. Can you tell us why these particular sports and what will be the level of involvement of U Sports?
Yes, these are the four sports that we want to be in. I think while in kabaddi our participation is as a team owner, in the other three we want to be at the top end of the value chain. When it comes to football, we are doing something that no one else in India has ever done before, even if I say so myself. The crux is that we have to get to the grassroot level and I know there are a lot of people who are already investing at the grassroot level. But the differentiator for us is that you cannot do 6 weeks or 6 months courses for kids. Firstly, you have to get them young so our entire initiative is for the under-12, under-14 and under-16 age group. Secondly, you cannot get into a disciplined sport if you are in a pampered environment. So, we have tied up with the Bundesliga (Germany’s top football league) to send these kids there for 6 years of training. We send 50-60 kids across the three age groups every year.
For me, the time frame and the fact that they are going outside the country is most important. Frankly, the challenge was not tying up with Bundesliga or selecting the kids but converting the parents’ mindset. We do not have a sporting nation DNA. For a lot of people, it is not a good or aspirational career option for their kids and this needs to change. We are sending these kids to train for 6 years and then we are going to manage their career thereafter. It is not a social project but it is a 10 year view that we have taken of football. We are sending teachers from here so their education does not suffer and we are also ensuring they learn 3 foreign languages.
Speaking of football, there has been some talk recently that it would be much better for the football ecosystem as well as sponsors if the ISL and the I-League are merged. What are your thoughts on it?
I don’t have very strong views on this, primarily because there are some challenges. The logical step would be that if you have a very limited talent base then it should all come together. On the flipside, the people who have invested in I-league have spent a lot of money over the last 10 years so they need to get something to show for it rather than just a trade-off.
They did not have the benefit of TV which would have taken I-League to a different level and ISL has managed to do this, which is why it is so popular. I think it is a fine line and people will need to sit down across the table and find a solution. It is up to the association to take a stand.
Having said this, multiple leagues do exist across the world. It is not like the Ranji Trophy is extinct because of the IPL. It’s something to ponder over.